"In Las Vegas, a quintessential company town, it’s the blowhard billionaires and their political toadies who are worth punching. And if you don’t have the freedom to call the community’s heavyweights to account, then that 'commentary' tag isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed," he wrote in a letter to colleagues, which he printed out and left around the newsroom.
Smith was first told not to write about Adelson on Jan. 28, a person with knowledge of the situation told POLITICO. That's the same day that Craig Moon was named publisher of the paper and that the R-J eliminated its standing disclosure about Adelson’s ownership. (Smith did not respond to a request for comment.)
The paper’s ban on Smith’s coverage of Adelson was not widely-known until Saturday, when R-J editor J. Keith Moyer defended it during an interview with Mary Hausch, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, at a Society of Professional Journalists meeting. The interview was live-streamed on Periscope by a R-J reporter in the room.
Moyer said that it was a conflict of interest for Smith to write about Adelson, who sued the columnist for libel after Smith published a book about Adelson. Though the case was eventually dismissed, the legal fees bankrupted Smith.
“I will tell you that John Smith and Sheldon Adelson have some personal—they have a long history, a legal history. Frankly, I personally think it was a conflict for John to write about Sheldon. The fact that he was [writing about Adelson] was a problem. It wasn’t right,” Moyer said during the interview.
Asked by Hausch whether Smith should add a disclosure to his columns about Adelson, Moyer said that a disclosure would not be enough; the conflict of interest was so great that Smith should not write about Adelson at all.
“As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson,” he said during the interview.
After the interview, Moyer learned that Steve Wynn had also (unsuccessfully) sued Smith for libel. On Monday, he told Smith that he should not write about Wynn, either.
The coverage restrictions worried reporters at the paper and close observers of the R-J, which has increasingly come under Adelson's influence since his family purchased the paper in December.
Jon Ralston, a Nevada politics pundit and former R-J columnist, wrote in a blog post on Monday that the new policy almost invited powerful people to sue the paper's reporters.
“No one would argue Smith should [not] disclose the lawsuits if he writes about these public figures. But to bar him from writing about either man? Is the standard now that if you sue a reporter at the RJ, that is a method to kill coverage? Really?” he wrote.
Moyer told POLITICO on Monday that he was not worried about this. If someone like Wynn sued a R-J reporter, the paper would defend them.
“If Steve Wynn wants to sue one of my people that he doesn’t like or he wants to get them off of his back, we’re going to fight that,” he said. “We will defend our journalists.”
The situation with Smith is different, he said, because Smith was not sued over work that he did for the paper.
“These were private lawsuits. The Adelson lawsuit had to do with the book that John wrote, not with what he wrote for the R-J,” he said.
Since the lawsuits did not concern work that Smith did for the R-J, Moyer considers them to be private conflicts of interest that must be managed like any other. Given Smith’s history with Adelson and Wynn, Moyer said, if Smith wrote about either of them, then readers might suspect that he was using his column to settle old scores. Moyer was quick to add that he does not personally believe that Smith would ever use his column for personal vendettas.
“While John may well be able to write objectively about Adelson, this isn’t about whether he might be able to do so. I’m not ever suggesting that John would ever use his column to settle personal scores. … He has a long and deep legal past with these two men, and I just think for the credibility for the newspaper, he should find other things to write about,” he said.
Ralston remains skeptical.
“I do not believe that this is some kind of pure journalistic move by him,” he told POLITICO on Monday. “Of course he’s going to find some kind of rationale to wrap around this decision that he’s made. I just think the whole thing is the tip of the iceberg that shows that Sheldon Adelson is closely involved with how the paper is run.”
Moyer said that Adelson had no input in his decision to prevent Smith from writing about Adelson and Wynn — or any other editorial decisions, for that matter.
“Sheldon Adelson has absolutely no role in how we run the R-J newsroom, other than providing us unwavering financial support. He doesn’t have anything to do with any decisions we’re making in this newsroom,” he said.
Read Smith's full letter to colleagues below:
Job opening: Columnist
I learned many years ago about the importance of not punching down in weight class. You don’t hit “little people” in this craft, you defend them. In Las Vegas, a quintessential company town, it’s the blowhard billionaires and their political toadies who are worth punching. And if you don’t have the freedom to call the community’s heavyweights to account, then that “commentary” tag isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed.
It isn’t always easy to afflict the comfortable and question authority, but it’s an essential part of the job. And although I’ve fallen short of the mark many times over the past three decades, this is a job I’ve loved.
But recent events have convinced me that I can no longer remain employed at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a spirited newspaper that had battled to remain an independent voice of journalism in this community. If a Las Vegas columnist is considered “conflicted” because he’s been unsuccessfully sued by two of the most powerful and outspoken players in the gaming industry, then it’s time to move on. If the Strip’s thin-skinned casino bosses aren’t grist for commentary, who is?
It’s been an honor working with you all. Your hard work and dedication remind me every day that journalism is better than ever — even if management leaves something to be desired.
John L. Smith
Author: Peter Sterne